Tough EnoughArbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil

Tough EnoughArbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil

Deborah Nelson

Print publication date: 2017

ISBN: 9780226457772

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book identifies Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Simone Weil as a counter tradition of unsentimental writing and art that stands between the cultures of irony and authenticity in the late twentieth century. Their work not only challenges empathy as the most important ethical model for attending to suffering in the postwar world, but also advocates for and demonstrates the ethics and aesthetics of the unsentimental. Played out at the level of style, this representational strategy required toughness, which is not desensitizing but rather re-sensitizing to the world, just not to other people's emotions. The book traces the careers of these women, who each had her own idiom for this unsentimental project. Simone Weil espoused a tragic formulation of justice in her embrace of a form of suffering so extreme its only analogy is the Crucifixion. Hannah Arendt described herself as heartless so as to elaborate an alternative to a politics of compassion. Mary McCarthy provided an aesthetic theory of the fact. Susan Sontag explored the problems of emotional self-regulation under late capitalism. Diane Arbus viewed failure as an ordinary part of self-fashioning, providing a pedagogy of helplessness. And Joan Didion pitched a battle with self-pity and self-delusion, which ground to a halt when she came to understand the grandiosity of hardness.